My Lords, I am not going to enter into the polemics of the history of devolution within England or in the United Kingdom more broadly, but I look forward to what the Bill is likely to provide for certain other areas of England. I very much welcome devolution as a principle because it is needed and is a way of empowering local communities far better than has been the case in recent history. It is a way to liberate the economies of the regions.
The first word of the title of the Bill is “Cities”. Being a rural resident and someone who works within the rural economy as well as here, I was concerned that this area might be left out and that for every metropolitan powerhouse we might have a rural poorhouse. That clearly would mean that we would have a two-speed England, which would be completely wrong and unacceptable. More importantly, it would waste the resource, energy and ability of a large proportion of our English nation. Within rural areas in England, we have half a million businesses registered, the turnover of which is something like one-third of a trillion pounds per annum. We are not talking about something distant and unimportant or something that is not vital to get right in terms of the devolution jigsaw.
Noble Lords can imagine my surprise and delight when, going through the Bill, I came across Clause 10, which states:
“The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about … the governance arrangements of local authorities”.
That is a very wide and general statement but I understand from the noble Baroness that it is the Government’s intention that the Secretary of State will be enabled to make secondary legislation allowing individual local authorities in England to have different powers and to be able to take more control of their future. I very much welcome that.
Cornwall has been mentioned a couple of times in speeches and in meetings that we have had with the Minister, which I welcome. But this is not about only that county in the south-west, it is a matter of principle that rural local authorities should participate in this process of devolution—not at the end of the queue but as an integral part of the queue. Within that context, perhaps I may ask whether there is a specific roadmap for local authorities. I should be interested to know how many are on the Minister’s action list at the moment. Is it a long list and where are we on that?
I welcome the fact that in her opening speech, the Minister emphasised that there are differences. I do not want to get into the arguments about elected mayors in terms of metropolitan and combined authorities. However, I presume from the legislation that it will not be compulsory for individual counties or other local authorities which take additional powers to have an elected mayor. I should like clarification on that. Clearly, it will be fine if they want them but a lot of rural communities are rather different in that regard and perhaps as existing authorities it would not necessarily be appropriate or be seen by the Government as being appropriate in the same way.
I understand that local authorities should not expect to queue up and say, “We want more powers”, and be disappointed if they are not granted. Clearly, there needs to be fiscal and financial responsibility. At worst it needs to be a zero-sum game and I hope that there will be financial savings, service enhancement being the most important. I look forward very much to the Minister’s reply as regards that issue. Rural areas are important. People living there are very keen to make sure that they do not become second-class citizens within this process.
I should like to mention two other issues. I was privileged to be one of the first members of the local enterprise partnership in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which is probably one of the more successful. As regards more general devolution and economic development being a key part of the rationale for combined authorities and greater devolution, it is important that the LEP jigsaw should tie in better than it does at the moment. A lot of LEP boundaries are very random. I recently chaired a Local Government Association commission for non-metropolitan area economic development. I know from LGA members that one of their concerns was that the present boundaries of LEPs did not necessarily tie up very well with the way that devolution might happen. I am interested in the Minister’s response on that.
Lastly, I emphasise a point made by my noble friend Lord Shipley: there is a real concern and risk that we move, during devolution—certainly in metropolitan areas and maybe in some rural areas as well—into, effectively, one-party areas. There were great problems with them back in the 1980s, which were then solved with very blunt instruments. I would be very disappointed if this devolution process once again ended in that same sorry state in one or two decades’ time.